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Afghan women in fight over rights law

A proposed Afghan law targeting women's rights has created an unlikely alliance between feminists and religious clerics.

Last Modified: 30 May 2013 10:10
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MP Fawzia Koofi has proposed legislation that has garnered a variety of opposition [AFP]

Kabul, Afghanistan - Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan MP, was left out to die under the sun the day she was born, according to a story she recounts in her autobiography. She is now set to run in Afghanistan's presidential elections next year. 

Among Westerners, she is regarded as a champion for Afghan women. In Afghanistan, her record is more mixed. Her recent push to get parliamentary ratification of a presidential decree for the elimination of violence against women - at the potential risk of throwing out the current law - has created unease among some women's rights activists.

Activists worry the parliamentary debate that took place last week has put regulations they spent years lobbying for in jeopardy.

For some women's rights activists and female leaders in Afghanistan, the 20-minute debate surrounding the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law came as little surprise.

Though initial media coverage framed the short debate in terms of conservative ideologies, many at the vanguard of the nation's women's rights movement saw it as pure politics.

"When it comes to women's issues, everything in Afghanistan is political," said Palwasha Hassan, a Kabul-based activist.

To many Afghan feminists, the arguments in Saturday's plenary session had as much to do with a lack of solidarity among female MPs as they did with the conservative ideologies espoused by those men who oppose the law on religious grounds.

Politics as usual

In pushing for the law to be introduced into the parliamentary agenda, Koofi's political gamble may have alienated women's rights activists - but she has also propelled herself into the spotlight.

A widowed mother of two, Koofi's life story has earned her considerable Western media attention.

But in a closed door meeting in the Afghan capital last week, female activists called Koofi's decision a betrayal, accusing her of promoting her own political ambitions.

For her part, Koofi worried that a presidential decree lacking the "prestige" of parliamentary approval could be overturned by Karzai's successor in 2014.

Fearing a tumultuous political climate and a conservative majority in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, activists tried to get the law off the parliamentary agenda.

Parliamentary realities

If each of the 69 female MPs persuaded only one man to pass the law, we'd already have 138 of 249 votes, Koofi reportedly said. Wazhma Frogh, who has been working on EVAW monitoring at the prosecution level, said more time was needed to mobilise efforts.

It is very simplistic to expect all the female members of the parliament to vote in favour of the EVAW law

- Orzala Ashraf Nemat, human rights campaigner

Rather than trying to get their male counterparts to vote in favour of the law, Frogh said, "[Female MPs] should have boycotted Saturday's sessions if they truly believed in women's rights".

A woman and former MP, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said Koofi's vision of 138 voters was not based in parliamentary reality.

Koofi's Western notoriety and power in the parliament has created several political rivalries for her among female lawmakers in Afghanistan. For female politicians, it is not just outside pressure that sways them to vote in one way or another, explained the former MP.

"The person advocating" for a law can play just as large a role in the decisions of female MPs as can their own personal feelings towards the topic at hand, she said. In her term in office, the female MP said she only witnessed a single occasion where the majority of the 69 female parliamentarians stood in unity.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan human rights campaigner who sat in on several parliamentary discussions on the law between 2008 and 2009, said Koofi's political calculations were incorrect.

"It is very simplistic to expect all the female members of the parliament to vote in favour of the EVAW law," because the struggle for legal protection of women's rights is still hampered by their position in society and politics, stated Nemat.

"This reality has to be accepted by all those who honestly are concerned about protection of women," she said.

A single person

When she took the podium last Saturday, Koofi said: "The process of making a law is not owned by a single person. It is a national process." However, activists say the actions of the woman hoping to be Afghanistan's first female president betrayed her own words.

Ever since Koofi announced her intentions, activists and civil society workers have been working on two fronts. On one side, they are trying to convince the women's commission from bringing the law to further parliamentary debate. On the other, female leaders have not had enough time to prepare for a conservative backlash. 

At the start of the plenary, Farkhunda Zahra Naderi, daughter of Sayed Mansoor Naderi, a politically and economically connected Ismaili spiritual leader, said "the EVAW law is valid; there is no need to put it on the [parliamentary] agenda". 

Naderi said that 70 signatures presented to the administrative board calling for the law to be taken off the agenda were unsuccessful. Those close to the situation said that Koofi's insistence only furthered rifts between female MPs.

For Frogh, this tension was made evident by the fact that "not one female MP rose to defend the law as conservative men bashed it. Not one raised a green or red card; in fact, they all turned their faces from the cameras".

It's in no one's interest to approve this law. The fallout from the debate could make conservatives more motivated to organise and call for a repeal of the law in its entirety

- Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch

Though female lawmakers stayed quiet during a debate described by Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, the Wolesi Jirga speaker, as "the first time [he had] ever seen a draft as controversial as this", there were male MPs who defended the proposed law on cultural and religious grounds. 

"The draft is against injustice, and it is the order of God to fight injustice," Ghulam Sarwar Fayez, MP from Badghis province said. The law makes child marriage, bride barter and spousal abuse criminal offenses.

The most controversial aspects of the proposed legislation are centred around raising the minimum marriage age for girls from nine to 16, sending men to jail for spousal abuse, and providing women and girls with sanctuary from abusive situations in shelters.

More motivated

"Sharia [religious law] and Islam has been misused by them as a way to maintain power. They are able to use Sharia against any women's rights or human rights issue in parliament," explained the former female MP.

Nemat added that the majority of those arguing against the EVAW lack "even the basic qualifications to define and explain a woman's place in Islam".

In a May 25 session, Sahib Khan, an MP from Logar province, said a group of religious scholars from the eastern province had criticised him for not "reacting" during the debate. These sorts of reactions by high-ranking religious leaders have created a dangerous precedent, according to Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"It's in no one's interest to approve this law," she said. "The fallout from the debate could make conservatives more motivated to organise and call for a repeal of the law in its entirety." This, said Barr, is especially disconcerting as the law itself had been "surprisingly non-controversial" since its 2009 approval by Karzai. But members of civil society say Afghan leaders are not the only ones who would be held to account if the law were to be altered by parliament.

Though the United Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and UN Women called for immediate implementation of the law, Afghan civil society leaders at last week's closed door meeting said the international community had "stood by and watched as their biggest accomplishment had been butchered by the parliament".

With a divisive parliament and an uncertain political future, the best solution may be to work towards the enforcement of the existing law, said Barr.

"At the end of the day, the law is just as valid today as it was yesterday," she said.

Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

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Al Jazeera
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